There was no active, openly gay player in any of the German professional football leagues. And this week, more than 800 players across the country announced how much this is about to change.
In a statement, the players say they will support anyone struggling with their sexuality.
“Nobody should be forced to come out. It’s a personal decision for each individual, ”write the players. “However, we want anyone who chooses to come out to know that they have our full support and solidarity.”
The appeal was published in the German soccer magazine 11 Freunde.
The evils of homophobia have long been anchored in German football. Only two male professional players have ever come out, and the first, Heinz Bonn, who played in the Bundesliga between 1970 and 1973, was eliminated posthumously.
A study by the German Sport University in Cologne found that 90 percent of LGBTQ people in countries of the European Union believe that homophobia and transphobia affect soccer.
In their message, the players undertake to defend themselves against any bigotry that may be levied against an openly gay player. “We say to everyone who is struggling with the decision to come out: we will support and encourage you and, if necessary, fight against possible hostilities,” it says. “Because you’re doing what’s right and we’re on your side.”
The entire squad of several Bundesliga clubs, including Borussia Mönchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund, Hoffenheim, Schalke, Werder Bremen and Freiburg, signed the letter. The Berlin Union star Max Kruse also gave the effort his name.
“For me – and not just in football – all people are the same, regardless of skin color, religion or sexual orientation,” he wrote. “If any of my coworkers came out, I would protect them from the idiots outside our team who feel disturbed or genuinely threatened by homosexuality.”
This is an important statement: Kruse, one of the more visible players in the Bundesliga, called homophobes “idiots”. His comments are in stark contrast to former German soccer captain Philipp Lahm, who wrote this week that he would warn a player not to come out publicly. Lahm’s predominant cause is the hostility a gay player might expect from opposing fans.
This line of scare tactics ignores the changing makeup of fans and the experiences of other male professional athletes. Here in the US, the few openly gay top male athletes in the arena or stadium have not experienced widespread homophobia. In fact, the opposite has happened. For example, when the NBA center Jason Collins came out in 2013, he was widely supported by the stars of the league.
Fans follow the lead of their favorite players, which is why it is so important for heterosexual allies in sport to make their voices heard. A member of the Bundesliga’s first gay fan club told ESPN that he hopes the league’s players will back up their words with action – if they get the chance.
“Symbolism is important, but it is even more important that these players protect their teammates and opponents when there is an exit and when there is hostility inside or outside the stadium,” he said.
While a public letter won’t change culture overnight, it is a sign that attitudes towards football are changing dramatically in Germany. Hundreds of professional footballers in the country have been shown to support the inclusion of LGBTQ. It’s a very big thing.
Photo credit: Henry Bethell, Sarah Lawrence College.